Self and religion

It strikes me that much of what I read about the self treats it as something static. Alan Combs in The Radiance of Being describes the self depicted in the Vedanta. This is atman, the eternal, unchanging source of the multi-layered structure which is the human being. This self is surrounded and eclipsed by a series of sheaths. These seem to be levels of awareness, ranging from the lowest, physical awareness, to the highest, rapture or bliss. All these exist together and progress is a progress in awareness not in being. He then goes on to compare the Vedanta model with those of Ken Wilbur and Jean Gebser. These follow the same pattern, though the names and the number of the stages may differ. They seem to me to be an attempt to join two contradictory ideas – becoming, growth and development with that of an eternal, unchanging substance. How these might be combined seems as intractable a problem as that of the mind/brain.

I see the self as a process of becoming in a much larger, a cosmic, process of becoming. I don’t know whether each individual self is necessarily eternal. I believe it has the capacity to become so. The soul is not an eternal, unchanging substance but a person who emerges from the dynamic process of relationships which is the cosmic process. The essence of being a person is being in relationship. It is a new complex of relationships which calls the person into being. The relationship of the mother and the father leads to the union of the sperm and ovum. This new entity grows and develops until a consciousness emerges and it becomes a person. A little later the person becomes self-conscious, caught up in a network of interactive relationships. Some of these relationships are positive and fulfilling, drawing out its potential. Others are neutral, while still others are harmful, damaging its ability to relate to others in an open and loving way. They turn it in on itself, creating a sense of isolation from and incompatibility with others. It is easy to see how important it is that the positive relationships should far outweigh the negative.

Nevertheless, however many the positive relationships and however few the negative, there is one problematic relationship which sooner or later impinges on a person’s awareness, and that is the relationship with existence itself. Eventually each person encounters the cold and impersonal reality of the brute facts of existence – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity. These immediately put all personal relationships into perspective. They are ephemeral; transient episodes in an all too brief life. Against the backdrop of history most lives are like shooting stars, flashing briefly into view and vanishing without a trace. It is no wonder that so much modern philosophy is negative and pessimistic. What can it offer except the encouragement to shout defiance at the blind meaninglessness of such a fate. It was in answer to this that religion was invented, or was it discovered? I think religion is an attempt to make sense of, to rationalise the awareness of the transcendent which has always been part of the human dimension. This is not something we can deal with as we deal with the other factors in our lives, like food, shelter and society. So we try to bring it down to a level we can cope with using myth, ritual and story. But never quite successfully. In the end all our human coping strategies fail and we find ourselves facing a dreadful (literally) void. This is the horizon of being, of existence itself. Beyond lies the greatest journey of all but, in spite of the glimpses we have had in the past, it takes a mad, blind courage to believe in the beyond. The myths and the rituals and the stories can help a little but there is no escaping the emptiness, the empty darkness and the absence. This too is part of the process.

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